Weird History

Here’s What Life Was Like At Los Alamos While Building An Atomic Bomb  

Genevieve Carlton
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What was it like to live at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project? As thousands worked to build a top-secret atomic device, the US military tried to keep the entire city secret. All mail was screened and sent through a fake address at the University of California. The security team warned residents to never use their real names, and to cancel all their magazine subscriptions. And the FBI even investigated the head librarian, suspecting that she was sharing secrets with the communists.

Yet at the same time, residents attended square dances, went on horseback rides, and drank ethyl alcohol at raging parties. Los Alamos history during WWII contains contradictions. It was both a military facility and a scientific research project. Civilian residents had to obey the orders of a military commander and follow strict rules of secrecy. However, with its own radio station, soda fountain, and frequent social events, Los Alamos could, at times, feel like any close community in the USA - rather than a secret project to build the most destructive device in history. 

These photographs from the detonation of the atomic bomb stunned the world. They also stunned the very people working on the Manhattan Project. As physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer told the men and women of Los Alamos after the first successful atomic test, “You are heroes today, but in a very short time you will be criticized for what you have done here.”

Billboards Warned, 'Keep Mum A... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Here’s What Life Was Like At Los Alamos While Building An Atomic Bomb
Photo:  U.S. Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Billboards Warned, 'Keep Mum About This Job'

Secrecy was the top priority at Los Alamos during WWII. But with 150,000 people participating in the Manhattan Project, keeping the work top-secret was a major challenge. 

The government chose Los Alamos because it was so remote, but secrecy required more than geographic isolation. Everyone living at Los Alamos needed security clearance and went through multiple security checkpoints to access the facilities. Armed guards protected the perimeter, along with barbed-wire fences.

Residents were constantly warned not to leak any information, with one billboard warning, "Keep mum about this job."

Scientists Took Ethyl Alcohol ... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list Here’s What Life Was Like At Los Alamos While Building An Atomic Bomb
Photo: The Day After Trinity/PBS
Scientists Took Ethyl Alcohol From The Labs To Throw Raging Parties

Scientists worked long hours at Los Alamos, convinced that their efforts could turn the tide in WWII. They also made time for parties.

"Everybody in my dorm would get together, chip in, and give a dorm party. Because it was dusty, muddy, rainy, snowing, you wore boots and things to work," says Rebecca Diven, an engineer and the wife of a Manhattan Project scientist. "We’d have a crew set up and clean up and then we would have punch in which somehow alcohol would magically appear, and we could make punch and different things."

That punch came from the scientific laboratories. Physicist Albert Bartlett recalls, "The basic ingredient of the punch in the dorm parties was ethyl alcohol from the laboratory stock... A lot of times, the punch was pretty strong."

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Photo: United States Army/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The Librarian In Charge Of Secrecy Was Investigated By The FBI

Charlotte Serber was a close friend of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the lead scientist on the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer asked Serber to serve as the librarian at Los Alamos

Serber struggled to maintain strict rules of secrecy in the library. She instituted nightly sweeps of the library to make sure that top-secret documents were never left out in the open. One night, Serber confronted a scientist who left out technical documents. According to Serber, "He argued that since the report was completely wrong, giving it to the enemy would be a service to the war effort."

Still, the FBI suspected Serber of serving the enemy. She was investigated in 1943 on suspicion of communist sympathies. Although the US Army recommended firing Serber, Oppenheimer insisted she was trustworthy.

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Photo: United States Army/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Babies Born At The Secret Facility Had PO Box 1663 On Their Birth Certificate

During the years of the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos experienced a baby boom. According to Dolores Heaton, who grew up at the facility, "Los Alamos had no crime. There was no kidnapping. It was an ideal situation to have children - to be able to have this kind of freedom, to grow up in this environment."

But babies born at Los Alamos were also shrouded in secrecy. Instead of their birth certificates listing a location of birth, they simply read PO Box 1663, New Mexico.

As John Mench, an engineer at Los Alamos, explains:

My daughter’s birth certificate says... that she was born in Post Office Box 1663 in New Mexico, because that’s the only way this place was designated. And everything that came to Los Alamos, whether it was a 10-ton machine or whether it was a postcard, came to Post Office Box 1663. And that’s where my daughter was born, still has her birth certificate.